A feint to keep from fainting

July 24, 2000|By Milton Bates

NEWS ACCOUNTS of seniors seeking to recapture a touch of youth by much bodily exertion seem to be on the increase. Awhile back, George H.W. Bush parachuted down; John Glenn rocketed up. But efforts at sports, some strenuous, predominate. Breathless paeans to ancient tennis leapers and scramblers appear, chronicling their geriatric joy of the game.

I've dabbled at that net sport awhile; the '30s, after all, were not yesterday.

It is with good reason that in the slightly refurbished lobby of the Twin Lakes Racquet Club I am known as "The Human Backboard." Invariably, the tones are appropriately hushed, for I am uncomfortable with praise, and this is respected.

If approached with requisite confidence, I patiently explain that my game is based on politeness. Should an opponent be good enough to hit a ball to me, I display the courtesy to hit it back ... time after time ... over the net ... in the court. He'll err. But this virtue masks the real secret of my game.

Despite the giddy claims of old timers, there are limits to what aging bodies can achieve. But lesser restraints exist on the mental mischief that a keen mind unfettered by ethics can bring to a court. For one trained by years of coaxing signatures onto bottom lines of aluminum siding contracts, this is the real challenge; the sufficiently unscrupulous might read on for valuable tips.

For starters, observe the faces of tennis elders as they approach the barn. All is eager anticipation. Totter in, throw on shorts and sneakers and let the games begin.

Consider the locker room. Position yourself within earshot of one of your day's opponents (the older, the closer). A shill, if the price be modest, is worth employing. In my world, Ed -- octogenarian, beatific countenance, former altar boy -- is perfect. More, he's cheap.

"What," he may ask me, apropos of nothing, "is the capital of Vermont?"

"Montpelier," comes my reply, with no discernible hesitation.

"Kentucky?"

"Not Louisville, but Frankfort."

A sideways glance at the soon-to-be adversary reveals dawning respect.

"Lucky," Ed sniffs. "How about baseball? Best career batting average?"

"Ty Cobb, of course -- .367."

"And who's third on that list?"

"The ill-fated Shoeless Joe Jackson, at .356."

All this delivered evenly, with no hint of smirk. The superiority seed has been planted. A guy this smart, the targeted victim begins to reason, might soon be equally clever at the net.

On then, to the warm-up session, where reverse psychology is applied.

Traditionally, the weakest weapon in the average hacker's arsenal is the backhand. Not many possess cannon-like accuracy with this unnatural stroke. Pure luck, then, that I am among the fortunate few.

But, in practice, I scuttle away from such shots, thus lulling the prey into hitting there once the chips are down. The confusion apparent when winning balls are hit is amusing to see. Many an early lead results.

Calling point scores and spots where opponents' shots supposedly land are fertile fields for obfuscation. Once passing three score and 10, keeping track of the day, much less the score, is a sometime thing. For example, if losing love-40 on serve, a valuable gambit is to announce that the count is 40-love.

This transparent attempt is laughed off, but it sets the stage for the soon-to-follow, subtle reversal of 30-40 to 40-30.

Rivals on a roll? Slow momentum by careful retying of already secure shoelaces.

Does fickle luck continue to bless them? Huddle with your partner, lips shielded as in a baseball mound meeting, This conveys the unsettling impression of a new surefire stratagem rather than the stall it is.

And, finally, the proper way to invalidate an opponent's winner: Be swift, matter-of-fact. Betray neither emotion nor any willingness to change the call. Innocently raise your hand, thumb and forefinger aloft about an inch apart.

This tells all. Very close, but that ball was out. Serve 'em up.

Milton Bates lobs an occasional tennis ball in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood.

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